Monday, May 6, 2013

What Good Writers Can Learn From Bad Writing

Before we are writers, we are readers. From our earliest days in school, the written word is an important part of the curriculum. In kindergarten we start with classics such as “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” As grade school continues, we are taught to write paragraphs that start with a topic sentence, include two-to-three supporting sentences, and then finish with the concluding sentence. At the same time, we are taught books that have won prestigious awards. When I was in school in the 1970s, it was “Where the Red Fern Grows,” “Up a Road Slowly,” “My Side of the Mountain.” My son, in grade school in the 2000s, read books like “The View from Saturday,” “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” and “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.” Both of us, in high school, read some of the same books despite the 25 year age difference between us: “Lord of the Flies,” “The Great Gatsby.” The writing instruction expands to research papers – we are taught to create a thesis, cite research to support our arguments, and write a compelling conclusion. Many of these papers are written about these books, talking about the symbolism of certain blinking lights or talking pig heads. We are taught to dissect the language, the metaphors, the overall meaning of these great books.

Yet, what these books do not teach us is how to be a great writer – or even a good one. Most K-12 English classes have their students write essays. Maybe there’s an occasional short story, but the concentration is more on understanding what makes a great book great – not how to create a great book yourself. In college, only students who major in English or creative writing might have the opportunity to take such classes.

As an adult, I read many books on fiction and took lots of classes in order to make myself a better writer. These classes rarely use passages from great books; rather, there’s a lot of generalized instruction on how to build a character or establish a setting. Some of these books might also offer suggestions on traps to avoid, but without being exposed to them (Hemingway, for instance, didn’t have such problems), how does a writer know what they look like?

I’ve spent the past year reviewing books for, many of which had been self-published. While several of these books had problems so deep that the site ended up not publishing the review, reading these books was as much an education for me as the classics. A book on writing fiction may advise the writer to avoid episodic storytelling, for example, but until I read a novel that was a series of minor adventures rather than one all-encompassing story, I didn’t realize how that type of storytelling affected pacing and minimized the impact of the climax and conclusion.

Writers can learn just as much from bad writing as they can from good writing. Seeing other people’s mistakes in action is the best way to see exactly what those mistakes look like, and the best way to avoid making these mistakes yourself.

Over the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to read books lacking conflict, overloaded with back story, featuring protagonists who were absolutely flawless, uneven tone, and unrealistic love interests. I consider myself lucky because seeing (or reading) these problems in action illustrated them for me in a way that just reading about them on a check list cannot do.

Does this guarantee I won’t make the same mistakes in my writing? Of course not. Does it guarantee that I won’t make different, perhaps even exotic errors with my current WIP? Absolutely not. No books are flawless, and the writing process is fundamentally different than the reading and editing processes. But I do think that having read such books make me more aware from the beginning of how these mistakes play out, and what to avoid from a plot and character standpoint.

So the next time you check out an interesting book only to discover loads of bad reviews, consider downloading it anyway. Reading it may not be all that entertaining, but it could be instructive.

1 comment:

  1. Jami,

    You're absolutely right! Sometimes I take good writers like Joan Didion, Barbara Kingsolver and Janet Evanovich (to name just a few) for granted, but soon come to my senses when faced with a novice. Poor writing is like taking a walk on a country road and stumbling over every pebble and tree root.